Meghan Duffy wrote a really thoughtful piece on science with a baby. She had lots of good points about the challenges of getting enough sleep, of feeding a baby, and that you can’t really take off from running your lab group entirely. But she had one point that has more general ramifications and is particularly important: what should you do if research, or anything really, stops being fun? After all, isn’t the pure pleasure of the complicated beast that is academic science what keeps us going?
Meghan’s situation was not a true loss of interest, but exhaustion from baby and health, as she reported in her blog, both things that sounded like they are already on the mend. But what if it truly gets boring or just not fun any more? What should you do?
First of all admit there is a problem and try to understand it. Is it no fun because you have hit some tough challenges? Have you had a bad run with funding agencies? Do you feel the questions you are addressing have become repetitive and unoriginal? Is it routine? Is your department falling apart around you? Is there a particularly difficult person? Is there something else that takes all your time? Are you suffering from a crisis of confidence? Are you sick?
In the decades I’ve been a professor, I’ve probably had crises of confidence and dips in interest for all the above reasons and dozens more. Probably so have you. So how to you move out of these troubles and back into productive research? I think the first thing to do is to regain fearlessness. Then figure out what should change. Toy with big changes if the area no longer thrills. Take a break.
When I was 12 I lived with my parents and sisters in London. My dad was on sabbatical and we were in school. We learned to eat bread with dripping and to play tennis on public clay courts. At the time I couldn’t tell what my dad was doing. It seemed like he had turned the living room into his study and was home all day long reading stacks of poorly copied articles from somewhere economic in London. Later he told me that was the year he made a big switch in his research from manufacturing to housing. He might have switched in another direction, but the point was he was ready for a switch. I guess manufacturing was no longer fun.
His was a big change. I’ve made changes big and small, from one wasp species and question to another. All the changes were not preceded by a loss of interest, but some were.
There are other directions to go in universities if the research no longer charms. You can focus more on administration, making things easier for others, or on teaching. And nothing says you can’t go find something altogether different to do. The point is that it should be fun, but it is natural for it not to be fun sometimes. The challenge is not that this happened, but in how you respond to it.